Bessie Kouns

Bessie Kouns1920s, kentucky, illegaldoctor, infectionSUMMARY: On May 1, 1928, 29-year-old Bessie Kouns died from an abortion perpetrated by Dr. H.C. Dorroh in Ashland, Kentucky.

On Saturday, April 14, 1928, Dr. T. D. Goodman was called to see a young woman named Bessie Kouns. He found her in a great deal of pain, with considerable swelling and tenderness of the lower abdomen.

Goodman went to see her again on the 15th, 16th, and 17th, but her condition was not improving in spite of treatment, so on the 17th he had her admitted to Stephenson Hospital in Ashland, Kentucky. There, her condition continued to deteriorate. On April 24, the peritonitis had caused bowel obstruction, requiring surgery. Prior to the surgery, which Bessie did not expect to survive, she made a deathbed statement to Dr. Stephenson.

She told Stephenson that at 7:00 on a Saturday evening, she had gone to 60-year-old Dr. Henry C. Dorroh’s office to keep an appointment for an abortion. Dorroh had been drinking and didn’t at first recognize her. She reminded him of the appointment. He cussed and told her to get on the table. He approached her with an instrument that he dropped on the floor, then picked up and used on her. He “nearly killed her”, Stephenson testified that Bessie said. Stephenson’s testimony was supported by Mr. Watt Prichard, who was present at the time Bessie made her declaration.

A stenographer was sent for to take the statement.

Despite the surgery, Bessie died from septic peritonitis on May 1 at the age of 29.

When the manslaughter case went to trial, Dorroh insisted that he had treated Bessie in February, but only for gonorrhea, and that the treatment might had caused an abortion had Bessie indeed been pregnant. The expert testimony was that the described treatment would indeed be appropriate for gonorrhea, but testimony was divided on whether it would cause an abortion.

BessieKounsLouisvilleKYCourierJournal21May1929.pngTwo women were subpoenaed, but failed to appear, who both the defense and the prosecution said would have testified that they had encountered Bessie several days prior to her hospitalization, and had been told by her that she had used a lead pencil to attempt an abortion and that she was suffering greatly from it. The court agreed with the prosecution that these were not credible witnesses, and the defense objected to this ruling.

The defense argued that the venue was in the wrong county, as well as that Bessie hadn’t really believed herself to be dying when she made her statement that he had done the abortion. But Dr. Goodman, the family doctor, testified that when he would enter Bessie’s room “she would grab my hand and say, ‘Doctor, I know I am going to die.'” The defense argued that since she was going to have surgery after the statement, she must have had some hope of recovery.

Dorroh was found guilty by a jury that included six women, but his conviction was later set aside and a new trial ordered.

Bessie, who did laundry work, had never married. She was the daughter of George W. and Emma G. (Hewellett) Kouns. She left behind an 8-year-old daughter, Dorothy.

Bessie’s abortion was typical of pre-legalization abortions in that it was evidently performed by a physician.

Keep in mind that things that things we take for granted, like antibiotics and blood banks, were still in the future. For more about abortion in this era, see Abortion in the 1920s.

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion



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